"Sometimes you gotta forget your head and grab your balls."
Black Rain is one of those middle-period Ridley Scott films, falling after the initial splash he'd made with his brilliant Alien and Blade Runner but before the later career resurgence that Gladiator brought. It was a time of mostly creative mediocrities and box office disappointments for the director, descriptions which both apply here. The movie developed a small cult following of fans mostly drawn to its visual style, but the picture hasn't aged well and won't hold up to anyone's fond memories of it.
Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia star as a pair of jerkoff New York City homicide detectives. Nick Conklin (Douglas) is like totally a badass rebel and stuff. You can tell because he wears a leather jacket and sunglasses, and rides a rad motorcycle. He's got street smarts, baby, and everybody knows that makes him cool. Plus, he's always standing up to the "suits" who boss him around and isn't afraid to tell them off and everything. Yeah man, don't mess with the rebel! His partner Charlie Vincent (Garcia) is more of a fast-talking slickster with big career ambitions. Even though he wears a suit, Nick totally gets him and they're best friends and all anyway.
So these arrogant pricks happen to be in a restaurant when they witness a bunch of Japanese Yakuza gangsters bump off an Italian Mafioso. Nick leaps into action and beats the crap out of one of the dirty Japs, but is stopped short of killing him when backup arrives. You see, Nick's sort of under investigation for corruption and doesn't need another black mark on his record. Too bad. Well, it turns out that the perp has to be extradited back to Japan, and who better to escort him on the trip than a couple of racist dickweeds like Nick and Charlie? Off to Osaka they go, handing him off to the local authorities as soon as the plane lands. Except that, oh crap, those guys with badges and paperwork weren't cops at all. They were Yakuza just impersonating cops! Sneaky bastards! Obviously, Nick and Charlie can't go home now, not when all the police in Japan are a bunch of stuffy uptight suits who don't know anything about real policework. Oh no, it's gonna take a couple of genuine NYC badasses to hunt down a criminal mastermind like this.
Thus sets in motion a by-the-numbers revenge plot in which the then-45 year old Michael Douglas gets to pretend that he could still pass as a relevant action hero for the '80s, riding motorcycles and kicking ass like nobody's business. The early scenes where he acts like Tom Cruise in Top Gun are especially embarrassing, and I swear to god that Douglas is styled with the exact same mullet that Mel Gibson sported in the first Lethal Weapon, as if it had been surgically removed from Gibson and planted on his head. The movie is absurdly cheesy and dated, with riotously insipid hard-boiled dialogue delivered with the utmost conviction by actors who ought to know better. The story is pure formula drivel, and for all the lip service it pays to notions of cultural harmony and tolerance (with Conklin learning some valuable life lessons in the end), the script is racist trash through and through, borne out of the 1980s American xenophobia that Japan was on the verge of taking over the world economically and culturally.
What little appeal the movie holds comes mostly down to the stylings of its direction. Scott gives us a dank and dirty New York followed by an almost Blade Runner-like vision of Osaka as a distopian metropolis: crowded, cluttered, and garish yet sleek and futuristic. The frame is constantly filled with flashing lights, bursts of steam, or little bits of detail to draw the eye. It's fascinating to look at (if not think too much about) for a while, but eventually even this aspect starts to feel like a pretentious music video.
Don't get me wrong, Black Rain does still hold some entertainment value, just not in any of the ways it was originally intended. If your brain doesn't fight against it too much, the movie can be sort of enjoyably dumb. But no, it's not a good film by any means, nostalgic notions of it being exotic and cool notwithstanding. It's just a lame cop buddy picture with some nice production design and photography, attributes that can't overcome its greater shortcomings.
The HD DVD:
Black Rain debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. A separate Blu-ray edition is also available.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Black Rain HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The photography by Jan de Bont (future director of Speed and Twister) is visually compelling with a good amount of detail and depth, but favors dark and dank textures that may not be appreciated by all High-Def viewers. The picture has very nice colors, just not the sort that pop off the screen. The transfer looks very good nonetheless, if not quite perfect. Some edge enhancement ringing is present, and digital compression problems are notable in frozen grain patterns during the New York scenes. That's less of a problem once the movie transitions to Japan. For a picture from the late 80s, Black Rain's video quality holds up pretty well.
The Black Rain HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 EX or standard DTS-ES formats (the packaging labels the DTS track as 6.1 but my receiver decodes it as ES Matrix). I had a hard time telling the two formats apart. Both are fairly bassy with reasonable surround envelopment for a movie from 1989, but dialogue comes across a little stridently. Hans Zimmer's percussive score and the ambient industrial noises are represented adequately. I can't say that I had all that strong an impression of the audio one way or the other. Looking at my notes I hardly wrote anything down about the soundtrack at all. It's good enough for what it needs to be, and no more.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except the trailer which is encoded in High Definition using VC-1. All of the supplements from the recent Special Collector's Edition DVD have carried over.
The three (four if you count the way the making-of special has been broken into two uneven parts) video featurettes were produced by Laurent Bouzereau and feel like they were designed as one long documentary that's been split into pieces to reduce the interviewees' royalty payments.
- Audio Commentary - Ridley Scott begins by admitting that he hasn't watched the movie in a long time and has a hazy memory about it. He's not the most exciting of speakers but this is a fairly decent commentary that covers the casting, technical elements, and the logistics of shooting in Japan and L.A. Scott gets lost in some weird tangents about Japanese cooking and space aliens in the middle of the movie.
- Black Rain: The Script, The Cast (20 min.) - Ridley Scott, Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Kate Capshaw, the screenwriters, and the producers are interviewed for this retrospective look at (obviously enough) the script and cast of the film. Much of the information found here is repeated from the commentary. Some vintage behind-the-scenes footage has been sprinkled throughout.
- Black Rain: Making the Film (38 min.) - Cinematographer Jan de Bont joins most of the above participants to comment on things such as storyboards, photography, action choreography, and research the cast did for their roles. Because the studio would have to pay a higher royalty rate to the participants for a featurette longer than 30 minutes, Making the Film has been shamelessly divided into a 29-minute section followed by a 9-minute section that were clearly designed to run together.
- Black Rain: Post-Production (12 min.) - Topics this time include the editing, music, and sound design. Hans Zimmer is brought in to talk about his score. It's revealed that Scott's first rough cut of the film ran 160 minutes, which he then hacked down to 110 minutes before the producers urged him to build it back up to the final running time of 125 minutes. We're told that while critical response to the film was largely negative in the United States, it was better received in Japan. They must have done a hell of a job dubbing it.
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) - Presented in its original aspect ratio and HD, the trailer looks pretty dim and soft. Content-wise, it blatantly gives away a major plot twist.
Black Rain is the sort of movie you remember as better than it really is and wish that it could hold up to your expectations, but doesn't. At all. It's actually kind of hilariously awful. The HD DVD's picture is pretty good and the sound is just OK. Rent it, don't buy.
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